Q&A: Could targeting immune cells prevent vision loss in diabetes?

Retinal immune cells could hold the key to reducing the effects of vascular conditions of the retina and brain including diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and stroke.

For around 1.7 million Australians living with diabetes – and with an additional 280 people developing the disease everyday – new research could form the basis for developing life changing therapies that limit the impact of diabetic eye disease.

Almost everyone with type 1 diabetes and more than 60 per cent of those with type 2 diabetes  will develop some form of diabetic eye disease within 20 years of diagnosis, according to Diabetes Australia.

New research, now published in the journal  PNAS , shows how blood vessels in the back of the eye are regulated, with the results suggesting vascular regulation is more complex than previously thought.

University of Melbourne experts found immune cells, called microglia, make contact with both blood vessels and neurons in the retina and can change blood flow to meet the needs of neurons.

Co-authors, Professor Erica Fletcher and Dr Andrew Jobling, identified the chemical signal that immune cells use to communicate with blood vessels, and demonstrated that immune cell regulation of blood vessels is abnormal in diabetes – a disease known to affect the blood vessels in the eye.

Importantly, they were able to show that at an early stage of diabetes – before there are any visible changes at the back of the eye – blood vessels are abnormally narrow, affecting the way they supply the neurons of the retina. Retinal immune cells were implicated in this early vascular abnormality, implicating them as a novel therapeutic target for controlling early changes in the retina in diabetes.

To find out more, we asked the School of Biomedical Sciences researchers about their findings and what needs to happen next in their quest to improve the health outcomes for those living with diabetes and other vascular conditions of the retina and brain.

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